Review: Junior High Rears its Hilarious Head in 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'

Middle school is its own world, one populated by awkward creatures and overhung with threatening skies. If you live there, you’re still discovering who you are, and deciding how much of yourself you want to reveal. Or maybe not; maybe you’re openly yourself, in all your bonkers glory.

The children in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are who they are, like it or not. They’re as awkward as they are smart, and they straddle the divide between childhood and adolescence. You can see it in their fidgeting, their anxiety—in the way this one wears overalls while that one dares a beret. Life, you intuit, isn’t easy for them (was it easy for any of us, in junior high?). Still, they’re here; they’ve made it to the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and they are here for glory.

Grand Rapids Circle Theatre’s production, co-directed by Chris and Jenna Grooms, eschews an elaborate set, stripping away extraneous elements so we’ll concentrate on what matters: these goofy kids and their battle for supremacy. Quickly, a few come into focus: bald, brainy Barfee (Braden Bacon), who writes, invisibly, with his “magical foot”; lisping Loggaine (Hannah Jarvis), she of the beret; and sweet-natured Olive (Phoebe Dawson), neither of whose parents have managed to make it to the contest.

The contest begins, hosted by kind, pretty Rona (Amy Cain), a former winner, and Panch (Nate Reynolds), a quick-to-anger judge who previously took a leave of absence from his role due to an undefined, but ominous, incident. They’re aided by Chip (Lucas Story), a former inmate tasked with comforting the kids, a role he ends up excelling in.

Among the children are random members from the audience—the actual audience, those who came to see the musical. One of the show’s great pleasures is the way these members are incorporated. The evening I attended, everyone up there was game, maybe especially because they didn’t have to sing.

The songs are brisk, serviceable, and, often, pretty funny. “My Unfortunate Erection” received the biggest response, but others landed, too, like Chip’s “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” which was beautifully sung by Story. Olive’s “The I Love You Song” was even more powerful; Dawson wrung every last bit of emotion out of it.

Ultimately, The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee is a fast-paced, fun musical that never allows its deeper ambitions to weigh it down. Watching it, your heart goes out to the kids. Making your way in the world isn’t something you can learn about in a dictionary or on a flash card, and there will probably come a day when Loggaine puts away her beret for good. But for now, there it sits, jauntily.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Circle Theatre
May 4-20